International aid: ready for retrenchment?

It’s clearly the season to be thinking about whether our current levels of aid spending are politically sustainable.  As Alex highlights in his excellent post below, new polling figures from Chatham House suggest that two-thirds of the British public think the UK shells out too much in  aid (although I concur with Alex’s assumption that few people track the real level of spending).  And as I note in a new commentary piece over on the ECFR site, this fits in with other signs of a looming attack on aid in Europe:

Some European governments, notably the UK, and the European Commission have done their best to uphold their aid pledges since the financial crisis struck. But last year the new coalition government in the Netherlands announced its intention to cut development spending by €400 million in 2011, with more reductions to follow. Opinion polls suggested that voters approved. Research for ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard found that France had cut its donations to UN humanitarian agencies by around 20% in 2009 and 2010. This week, the human impact of such economising was brought home as Oxfam and other NGOs revealed that European donors including France and Germany had pledged miniscule sums of aid to address the drought in East Africa.

These are, aid experts worry, the initial signs of a deeper shift in Europe’s commitments to helping the poor and vulnerable beyond its borders. Over the last decade, it has become a standard defence of the EU to note that whatever the bloc’s military and diplomatic weaknesses, it is at least the world’s biggest source of international aid. But it hardly requires a mystical ability to see the future to predict that as EU members grapple with debt and domestic priorities, foreign aid budgets will be under recurrent pressure.

Like it or not, I think that it is pretty inevitable that we will see a period of continued retrenchment by European donors in the years ahead (check out the full ECFR piece to find out why). The question is whether this will be smart retrenchment – with governments, NGOs and international organizations actually working out how to introduce sensible reductions, evaluate what works, etc. – or a poorly-coordinated set of budget cuts justified by vague appeals to “the need for austerity”.

There are lots of reasons to expect the latter.  It’s hard to instigate serious discussions about retrenchment because (i) aid’s opponents have lots of easy populist arguments about how “aid never works”; and (ii) aid’s defenders naturally adopt maximalist positions when faced with these attacks.  If you back down from the (now sadly hard-to-sustain) stance that the developed economies should continue to aim to spend 0.7% of GNI on development aid, it’s hard to know where the retreat will end…